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    Toward Remembering Where I Came From

    Knowing your past will guide your future.

    By Brewer Eberly

    June 15, 2021
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    • Paul

      To read about the past I understand, but what do you mean by “commune with the dead”?

    • M. L Skillin

      What a wonderful essay. I, too, am compiling my family's genealogy and for each person found I try to imagine what their life was like. I remember stories of ancestors now long gone and I realize the importance of these remembrances.

    • Cindy

      So well said! Many persons of today could find so much peace in finding who you are, instead of being so focused on who you want to become. Sometimes in knowing the history of the journey you find Gods plan was there all the time! You just finally arrived where he had already planned for you to be. THank you for your words.

    Every place had been displaced, every love
    unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
    to make way for the passage of the crowd
    of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless

    with their many eyes opened toward the objective
    which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
    having never known where they were going,
    having never known where they came from.

    Wendell Berry

    I once took a course called “Theology of Place.” Students had to complete a straightforward assignment: write a short reflection on the word “home.” It was as open-ended as it sounds. Most people wrote about the houses they grew up in or a place that reminded them of home. Some took a more philosophical approach, pontificating over what home might mean. A few wrote poems.

    As part of this assignment, the graduate assistant for our class had an assignment himself: to take our essays and write a single essay in response, one essay reflecting on thirty.

    His essay beautifully honored the visions students captured. At the same time, the more we listened to him read his essay aloud, the more it became clear his response was cut through with melancholia. He sensed that while a few students spoke of stable place and community, most did not, bouncing instead among many places and origins, as if searching for home. He wondered how our generation could possibly cultivate a sense of the homestead when we were so eager to explore – so eager for freedom – having no place, as it were, to lay our heads. The last line of his essay is seared in my mind: “It seems to me you all have gained the world but lost the home.”

    This line continues to haunt me as my father completes a book on the history of our family – the Eberly, Yost, and Demaree lines (“Eberle” – “small boar” – and “Demarest” originally). He’ll only be printing a few dozen copies – no threat, dear reader, of an Amazon hyperlink.

    My dad is a physician by vocation, and as he might put it, “not a writer writer.” He’ll get a grand idea in his head (a book on parenting, or this book) and then furiously pour himself into the project before losing motivation about a year in. This is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because he clearly responds to the spark of obsession necessary to get material onto the page, material my sister and cousins and my sons would likely never see were it not for his furrowed evenings hunched over the floor of his study, letters and photographs and old correspondence scattered about him like old patient charts. Many of these documents are truly stunning: sketches of old trunks and lost bridges. Love letters written in the dark.

    But my father’s flashpoint is also a weakness: good history takes time, often years, to do right. So he relies on others – the countless hours of genealogical research from my mother over the years, and stacks of cracked, forgotten files from my aunts (women are the real protectors of story here). A family history is obviously a communal work.

    My father is writing this because he is acutely aware, as am I, of my generation (at least, in my slice of upper middle-class America) having acquired everything but lost its home. And he is asking what it profits a man to gain the world if he loses his home. Wendell Berry called it the great unsettling of America. Charles Taylor called it the malaise of modernity, David Foster Wallace the infinite regress. And my father wants to do something about all this – the unsettling, the malaise, the regress. Not in a world-changing way, but as an act of local love. He wants to call his children to remember.

    photo of a rocking chair on a front porch with a white fenced field in the background

    A late afternoon mist hovers over the northern field after a rainstorm. The standing stone peaks out in the foreground. My dad sent this to me in 2014, a few weeks after Father's Day, at the close of my first year of medical school. Photograph by John B. Eberly, Sr., June 2014. All photographs courtesy of the author.

    To work in medicine – I’m also a physician – is to be particularly prone to forgetfulness. You’d think the opposite would be the case, given the popular conception of the doctor as one with a preternaturally capacious memory. But it’s more that our memories are highly selective – attuned to a particular matrix of interlocking facts that are exponentially appearing only to be overwritten shortly afterward. That means being consumed, the mind always ready to forget one thing and replace it with another. I think Martyn Lloyd-Jones had it right here: “I’ve met many a man whose tombstones might well bear the grim epitaph, ‘Born a man … died a doctor.’” A family history is one way to resist that fate. Eberly will suffice for my tombstone.

    Moreover, we are probably the first generation in human history that doesn’t really know the communities from which we come. I can’t name any of my eight pairs of great-grandparents. (Perhaps you can, but I would ask, respectfully, what do you know about them?) As Alasdair MacIntyre has famously argued, we speak of justice with verve and passion but are unlikely to know what justice really means or from whom we inherit the very concept. We’re so eager to throw off the shackles of our received traditions that we’ve wholeheartedly loosed our roots from the loyal land and bound ourselves instead to that great banality of modern self-actualization, “you do you.”

    To read a history of one’s family – to really read it and step into it – is to slowly realize that “you do you” is ultimately both boring and vacuous. To read family history is to remember that one comes from others, and there are great adventures to be had by stepping outside oneself. It is to learn how to hear the quiet, vast testimony of what G. K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead” and to simultaneously learn to temper the chattering, arrogant oligarchy of the present. It is, to borrow from C. S. Lewis, to let the sea breezes of ancient lives blow through the dusty furnishings of one’s mind.

    I want my sons to know the places and people that formed them, to know where they have come from and therefore where they are going. What a counterintuitive claim: to know where you are going you must first know where you come from, as if retracing your steps makes the path ahead clearer. For Wendell Berry, the understanding of place, by which he means community, land, and all its creatures, is a necessary precondition for the formation of love and the cultivation of the trust and relationships necessary for future commitment and sacrifice. For it is only in that long and loving attention to the place that formed me and the history of my people that I can understand who I really am and the work that needs to be done. For a generation that has lost “home,” it will take willingness to do this work – to collect the stories, letters, and facts and compile them in some way. It will take a father’s love to write the book.

    When poet Czesław Miłosz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, he lamented that our planet was characterized by a bewildering “refusal to remember.” I’m told the late ethicist Allen Verhey said something similar, that the Christian life is one long act of trying not to forget. “Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you” (Isaiah 44:21). Remembering is a lifelong act of formation. And remembering is always bound to particulars – particular stories, people, places.

    photo of a white house surrounded by trees in the winter

    Home after a December snowfall. Green, grey, and brick peak out among the white, while the barn glows red in the back. Photograph by John B. Eberly, Sr., December 2018

    When I remember my home, I think of the sun rising over a particular barn at the eastern edge of a particular hilltop. Storms roll down from the Blue Ridge, arriving first at the northern pastures. Golden hour bathes the sky in the evenings. The lichens that grow on the outdoor furniture – small, friendly patches of pale green and grey – set the palette, growing on tree, teak, and table. The tiles of the roof are the same green, the paneling a soft white, and the foundations a weathered brick brown. Inside the house, the warm gold of wood glows in the flooring and antiques. Green and grey tiles, like the lichens outside, mingle with red-brown accents, like brick, set at the door. Stained glass, paneled with gold, absinthe green, and ground-glass burgundy, hangs over the larger windows while skylights open to the sun. Grey-green birdhouses blend into the branches. The sheer frequency and variety of birds and other small creatures is remarkable. As my dad joked one morning, breaking his silence as he stared out the kitchen window, “Our home is like a Disney movie – there are animals everywhere. I’m just waiting for them to start singing.” It is a place, as the Genesis creation account says, of “teeming.”

    I remember home as a place of quiet. This silence is appropriate, for the land is a place of consecration and rest. A sense of the sacred hovers over the ground – for it is literally a burial ground. The only creature I’ve ever felt true affection for, my dog, is buried there, under a young white oak. Two cats and two horses died on the land and are buried in their own places in the pastures. When my mother’s ribcage was crushed by a spooked horse, she was airlifted out of the northern field by the gallop of helicopter blades. In that same grass, I nearly maimed my younger sister and cousins in a moment of adolescent stupidity. That pasture is a place of storms – peach trees twisted to death by squalls. The land is a place of memoriam; it recalls death, near death, and thanksgiving for life. My father erected a small standing stone near the northern field to remember. Sitting with the lichens on the outdoor teak reveals these places of near tragedy, marked by where the eye finds the tip of the stone touching the horizon. This sacred place, protected by silence, supplicates; a simple, crocheted prayer by my mother reads “God Bless Our Home.” Hanging beside the door, a black wooden sign with gold lettering declares: “Joshua 24, ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’”

    Home is a place of paths between lives. I drove my first wrecked car back to that garage, asked for my father’s forgiveness, and received it (as well as a repayment plan). My mother’s cooking and warmth permeate the memories that particular home brings to mind. I see my sister even now, walking through the barn, brushing the horses. I brought my first girlfriend home to that kitchen. I decided to date my now-wife on the western porch, meditating alone on a rusty swing. I wrote the eulogies for my grandparents at the pillars on the front porch as if preparing on a sacred podium, set apart long ago for that purpose. The land holds endless memories of coming of age. I still meet old friends there for a cigar or a drink. We still stand and stare at the stars. We lean on the fence overlooking the land, and remember the paths, using few words, walking them again in memory.

    And that is just the beginning of tracing these paths backward. I’m merely surveying the antechamber. Inside, there is the story of that home built in 1934. There is the settling of the Eberlys in Virginia and Pennsylvania, coming from Germany centuries before. There is an old sword melted down into silverware and Topham trunks built for Roosevelt. There is a blue coat of arms with scalloped shells and the striking sight of my great-great grandmother, shotgun in hand, stopping an eagle as it tried to carry away her swaddled baby boy. Those few details don’t begin to capture the deep resonances of love and commitment that I’ve just begun to learn about – the long marriages, the words of faith, the poems kept close at hand.

    My dad has written a book to help me, my sister, and my cousins locate ourselves yet again in the paths between lives, to know our place, the vows that have been sworn and the words that have been spoken. It is a precious opportunity to commune with the dead and lean on the fence of history – to be inspired, but also to be chastened and formed. It is a chance literally to remember, not only in the sense of recalling lost memories but to re-member the family, to be bound up in a community of members that make a claim on me. Here I can let go of the world and find home, and have a story to tell my sons when they ask me, “Dad, where do I come from?”

    I’ll answer, “Here are the places, and here is the love, and here is where you are going, for here is where you have come from.

    And go tell your grandparents thank you.”

    Contributed By

    Brewer Eberly is a chief resident in family medicine at AnMed Health in Anderson, South Carolina, and a former fellow of the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Fellowship at Duke Divinity School and the Paul Ramsey Institute with the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is co-editor of The Hippocratic Forum and has been published widely, most recently in Comment and The New Atlantis. He plans to practice and teach at the intersections of medicine, aesthetics, ethics, and Christian theology, with a particular eye toward medical trainee formation.

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